Saturday, March 28, 2015

Video: Naomi Klein launches her new book in Barcelona

"Si hi ha un desig democràtic per la... by vilawebtv

Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein this week launched her new book, "This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs The Climate" at the Centro de Cultura Contemporanea de Barcelona (CCCB).

In this short [VilaWeb] video (with Catalan subtitles) Klein links the idea of political independence with a more independent energy policy.

She was my first journalistic interview in 2000 at the time her excellent first book "No Logo" came out and (even over the telephone) was one of the nicest people I've ever talked to for an article.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Video: "Seeking ‘Brave Journalists’ in Spain to investigate the TTIP Trade Agreement"

"The main concerns for groups that oppose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and North America are the lack of transparency and the way in which the agreement will affect the communities involved. 
In Madrid, Spain, the Asamblea Popular de Tres Cantos (Tres Cantos Popular Assembly), a community activist group that is well known for its participation in protests against the economic crisis, is “seeking brave journalists” as part of an appeal to the media to investigate the treaty.

In the video published on the organization's blog and various social networks, members of the assembly appear with photographs of employees from Spain's large media organizations, which have largely ignored the treaty in their coverage, and offer them a challenge:" [see English subtitled video above.]

More from Global Voices Online source article here.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Homage to George Orwell: free lecture in Barcelona

Michael Shelden, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his biography of George Orwell, is holding a conference about the author on Wednesday the 18th of March at 7.30pm at the Institute of North American studies, Via Augusta 123 in Barcelona.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"320,000 Catalans receiving food aid due to rise in “poor workers” "

"The real scope of the work being done by social institutions in a matter as basic as covering the food requirements of poor families is reaching scandalous figures: over 320,000 people are currently receiving food aid in Catalonia.

The report...presented the Catalan Red Cross dignif[ies] and defend[s] the right to food. [It] highlights elements that suggest these needs are not going to diminish any time in the near future, such as the increase in “poor workers” - earning wages that do not allow them to meet their basic needs - increasingly more chronic poverty and growing inequality.

Given this scenario, social organizations are committed to working on two areas: first, the dignifying of the system when providing aid, and second, providing people with full care, that is, not only food but also support in housing, hygiene and school materials, as well as training and employability guidelines for finding work.

Last year, the four food banks in Catalonia distributed nearly 22.4 million kilos of food to a total of 260,497 people. All this while every year 262,471 tonnes of food are wasted in homes, shops and restaurants."

[Sònia Pau - Source: Catalonia Today news.]

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Why go the public way? (Part two)" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

When I was much younger my mother used to tell me that one day if I ever needed a pay raise I should just go and ask my boss for one. In the 1950's when she was at work, before having my brothers and I, this might have got some results.

The first (and last) time I tried the technique of simply asking for an increase in my pay I was unceremoniously sacked. I had been paid between 20 and 21 euros per hour over four years working as a high school teacher of three different subjects at an international school near the wealthy coastal resort town of Sitges and I had become, like my most of my colleagues, frustrated at also doing hour after hour of unpaid labour. 

Teachers in the Spanish and Catalan public education system are routinely criticised, sometimes legitimately so, but their conditions of work mean that they cannot be unfairly fired from their jobs, as I once was.

Of course, it's not only public school employees and civil servants that benefit from the protection that the state can give. A doctor or nurse with security of tenure has one less source of stress and therefore is more likely to do their job better - patients and their families may well receive good care at least partly due to the fact that they are in the hands of people who have the reassurance of employment that cannot be terminated by a short-tempered employer. 

Personally, this is just one reason why I think government health care is preferable to private and my experiences with both kinds of treatment have so far backed this up.

It's also the case that privatisation - governments selling parts of the public sector to private companies - has largely been disastrous for users of services that were formally run by government organisations. The company behind Britain's first privately run hospital recently said it planned to pull out of its contract but in an extraordinary piece of irony, blamed government budget cuts for making it's emergency department too busy...and naturally less profitable.

The railway network in the UK is a very clear example of how after privatisation prices can skyrocket, while trains are more crowded and late in arriving - regardless of which private firm is operating the line. Since assistance to job seekers in that country was palmed off to various companies, some employees have claimed that they scored “brownie points for cruelty” to the unemployed and were constantly pressured to impose 'benefit sanctions' (meaning cuts to monthly payments) on even the sick and disabled for no good reason.

In Australia, after the telephone system was sold off a large number of rural families were told that they were not as deserving as others to have telephone lines, because they were less “economically-viable” living in small towns. It is a cast-iron rule of economic 'rationalism' that people can be 'rationalised' just like stock.

Some governments are working against privatisation though. Late last year it was reported that Catalan officials are seeking legal tools that might allow them to undermine Spain's Rajoy administration in it's plan to privatise state-owned airport operator AENA, which runs El Prat airport. As well, the new national government in Greece has announced that it is halting the privatisation of both the electricity grid and Athens' port at Piraeus. 

It may be that citizens across Europe are again starting to see the merits of going the public way.

 [This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2015.]

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"First impressions of the Djemaa el Fna at night, Marrakech" - Matt Hetherington

"A bit smaller than I expected (seves me right for expecting!), but wonderful in a dark, random, melancholy, chaotic kind of way -- "The Assembly of the Dead" / "The Mosque of Nothing", as the name translates after all. Within sight (i.e. 500 m) of the massive Koutoubia minaret, on a site that was a place of execution apparently well into the 19th century -- a pagan, almost lawless place. Part cheap-thrill carnival, part nuthouse, part music festival, part anit-Islam release-valve, part gay cruise, part pickpocket paradise, part tourist trap, part country fair. And more. I found it mildly predictable after 10 minutes, slightly sad, kind of inspiring, a bit frightening, strangely instructive, otherworldly, and tiring. But Ill be back there tomorrow night."
[Matt Hetherington]


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Why go the public way? (Part one)" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

If tomorrow the government for some reason disappeared and we were all left without a system of state would it in fact be such a bad thing? 

There are people across the planet (and especially in the USA) who say that anarchy or virtually no government involvement in our lives is the best situation for the individual. 

What they don't recognise is that without important services for the public, run by the public sector all that is left is the whims of a small number of the richest to decide what the rest of us get and how much it will cost.

Since the collapse of communism as an economic alternative to capitalism in the 1990's and mainstream acceptance of market forces as the single dominant principle following the Thatcher/Reagan era, it has been fashionable to see the public sector as the biggest problem to deal with. 

A recent example proves exactly the opposite. The financial disaster that has swept across Europe since 2008 has shown us that terrible errors made in the banking sector demanded huge amounts of taxpayer's money to prop-up and compensate for excessive risk-taking by finance "experts."  

The ideologues who argued against government regulation and oversight are the very same people who have put out their hands for government bailouts for their shaky financial institutions.

What this continuing disaster clearly shows is that those making decisions in the private sector are at least as likely to stuff up as those in the public sector. 

And they are in fact even more likely to make judgements that are in their own self-interest rather than any notion of the common good because that is the nature of business. 

To survive they must make profits. In smaller operations the overriding concern is to keep the books balanced and not go into the red too often or for too long. In larger companies with shareholders their main job is to make sure that these shareholders get significant dividends - good returns on their investments. All other matters are minor when compared to the financial bottom line. 

Yes, there are some corporations and some bosses who are ethical and treat their employees well but especially in multinational companies those in ultimate control (ie. owners and shareholders) often do not even live in the same cities or even the same countries as the workers who create the revenue for them. Their greatest prioritiy is to produce more wealth for the already wealthy.

On the other hand, there is the public sector. Governments routinely fail the people they are supposed to be accountable to - not shareholders, but instead citizens, or at least voters. 

We should not confuse the incompetence or corruption in governments of every kind with incompetence or corruption in the private sector because there are some crucial differences. 

In theory, every few years electors in democratic countries have the opportunity to remove governments that let them down, and in fact we often do this. 

When the political system itself fails its citizens, such as in the two-party system that has caused many of us to question democracy itself (including in Spain, the UK and the USA) an alternative should arise before too long, provided that the populace takes a strong enough interest in how well it is governed. In Spain, Podemos is one example of this.

The 20th century had one fundamental battle of ideas that ran through it and that was the battle over how much government we would have in our lives and why. 

One extreme end of the spectrum held that complete state control of the economy was ideal but across China, Russia and Eastern Europe this has proved to be too much to bear. 

So-called free-marketeers countered that this proved that government "interference" in the supply and demand of goods and services (including the supply of labour) was mistaken - that it is somehow counter to human nature. 

In this column next month I will be arguing why it is they who are in fact mistaken.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, February 2015.]

Monday, January 26, 2015

How Portugal beat drug addiction

Author, Johann Hari
"Nearly 15 years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe.

They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse.
So they decided to do something radically different. 

They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and take all the money they once spent on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them—to their own feelings, and to the wider society.

The most crucial step was to get them secure housing and subsidized jobs, so they had a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. In warm and welcoming clinics, addicts are taught how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma.

One group of addicts was given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other and to society, and responsible for each other's care.

An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and intraveneous drug use is down by 50 percent.

Decriminalization has been such a success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system.

The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira, the country's top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News.

But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass—and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal's example."

Read more from source here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Literary rambles" through Iberian books

Literary rambles is a good quality English language blogsite that focuses on recent releases and news from the world of books across Spain and Portugal.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Video: "The right to die in Belgium: An inside look at the world’s most liberal euthanasia law"

"With the most liberal laws in the world governing physician-assisted suicide, surveys in Belgium show overwhelming support for its legality. Doctors say euthanasia gives terminally ill patients experiencing constant and unbearable suffering a practical and humane way to die peacefully. But even in a country with far-reaching acceptance, controversy still remains."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Blue Black Friday" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today

Just last month we witnessed the latest craze from the USA arrive here.

Without doubt, the Black Friday sales will now be an annual event and will certainly grow in intensity each year.

If anything accurately represents pure, raw capitalism it was the sight of crowds of people surging and barging though department store doors. Some had bulging eyes.

Some were smiling in anticipation or possibly relief at finally being inside the gates of the consumerist's palace. Other people were clearly using their arms and shoulders to shove slower shoppers out of their way.
In the UK police had to restrain mobs at some Tesco stores and arguments and fights broke out in branches of ASDA (owned by U.S. giant Wal-Mart.) Four arrests for violence were made in Greater Manchester alone.
One report quoted a 56-year-old hairdresser on an overnight trip to a Sainsbury supermarket saying that the scenes were "crazy" and "disgusting". "I got a Dyson [vacuum cleaner], but I don't even know if I want it. I just picked it up," she said.
This pandemonium is aside from the online sales that also form part of the Black Friday marketing push.
Amazon was the first to introduce the trend into Europe in 2010 and this year in Germany and France a number of major retailers (including FNAC) publicised the day and offered claims of reductions.
In Spain, El Corte Inglés went even further than its rivals and hosted a four-day fiesta of supposed discounts.
Naturally, it was in the US where the day went to it's animalistic extremes of riots and frenzied stampedes.
Last year there were separate incidences of a shooting and a stabbing and this year five injuries were recorded, along with three arrests.
The website has kept records of relevant news stories and has documented at least seven deaths and ninety six injuries in the U.S. since 2006. (Somewhat ironically, the website also sells T-shirts with the words "I survived Black Friday" on them for $18.00.)
Of course, I'm all in favour of a real bargain and I love a bit of a haggling at a market stall.
I would think that many of the people who buy in store or online on Black Friday are genuinely wanting to save money on something that they may not have been able to afford without a drop in the sale price or they simply believe that they are getting a product that will in some way enhance their lives.
I just question whether a lot of the buying is in any real sense, needed.
Having grown up in an Australian city where the shopping mall was the focus of social life for the easily-influenced young, as well as plenty of retired people, I have a fundamental disagreement with spending money as a major free time pursuit.
Europe is full of parks, beaches, squares and even ramblas: all public spaces not specifically made for commercial activity.
Anyone is free to be in theses places without thinking of them self as a consumer first.
In a shopping mall there are usually almost no seats that are not part of some kind of cafe or food joint. To be there is to be a buyer.
Simply put, I just want to live in a part of the world that continues to value things that don't have a money value.

[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2015.]

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Another season of Australian film in Barcelona

Following on from the successful ASBA-RMIT Australian Film Season, the Australian Embassy and Casa Asia are presenting an Australian Film Season at Cinemas Girona [C/Girona, 175, 08025, Barcelona] starting this Saturday, 10 January, and running each Saturday night until 14 February.

Entry price: 2, 50 Euros.

See link here for more details.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My review of "An Englishman in Madrid" by Eduardo Mendoza

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2015.]

"Look, I'll tell you how things really are," says one of the author's characters (speaking in 1936) "whatever they say, this is not a poor country. This is a country of poor people."
And it is the elements of social class, poverty and inherited wealth that I most enjoyed in this book, and not just those about Spain.
The Englishman of the title is Anthony Whitelands, a middle-class, Cambridge-educated art specialist who meets a seemingly generous and affable police officer on a train to the capital.
Before long though, we learn that he is being closely watched.
Whitelands has arrived in an atmosphere of public demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, beatings and sometimes fatal street violence between the forces of the right and the left.
The victims are largely the young and politically undeveloped but Whitelands is at first ignorant of all the friction and tension that was gripping so much of the country.
Increasingly, the protagonist is caught up in a number of situations outside his control and he is also snared by his own appetites: both carnal and his desire for greater recognition and fortune in "the narrow world of academia, with its tedious research and sordid rivalries."
He sees himself as just a small fish but is convinced that a newly discovered (privately-owned) Velazquez painting could be exactly what he his hoping for.
Whitelands goes on to find himself "in somewhat of a pickle," as his compatriots might say - everyone in the big, small town of Madrid wanting a piece of him for their own particular reasons.
He appears in many senses to be an "English gentlemen" but he eats like someone else. I find it hard to accept that he would sit down to a breakfast of "squid and beer."
Amongst other things, what really comes through in the pages of this jaunty, lively tale is Mendoza's sensitive and intuitive reading of art.
This book reads like a longish short story though it has a pace that is clearly Mediterranean. After ninety pages very little has happened.
It's a kind of slow burner with the characters regularly spouting extended "speechifying" monologues or digressing into unconnected anecdotes.
The reader gets a good feel for their personalities, facial expressions and other mannerisms and this all gives the narrative the feel of something written almost in the period in which it is said. That's not something easily achieved by a writer sitting at a computer in the 21st century.
The author is also astute enough to point out the existence of masons in Azaña's government of the time and, with an eye for detail, draws what he must think is a distinction between the British upper class with their apparent love of ceremony and the Spanish upper class who opt for simpler, less formal social situations and meals.
One of his more observant characters knows the necessity of explaining to the Englishman that "it's not just money that the proletariat wants. They want justice and respect."
In fact Mendoza drops comments on the hesitancy, contradictory decision-making and general malfunctioning of public administration that surely also apply to many companies and to the excesses of today.
"The Spaniard's keep wages low," says a English diplomat "while at the same time making social hierarchies plain. Workers earn half what they should and have to thank their employers...That way, their social position is reinforced."
On the other hand, one of the Spanish toffs makes the absurd statement that England has an "egalitarian society based on social relations that satisfy everyone," as if the trade union members and socialists in Britain did not exist.
Ultimately, the author entertains and occasionally informs while giving a relatively favourable portrait of the Spanish "nobility" of the day. He provides an explanation for their inaction on social progress that lies somewhere between a reason and a weak excuse.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"Peaceful, but menacing: German xenophobia"

"Calling themselves Pegida, or “patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident”, since October they have marched through Dresden every Monday. Their numbers are growing: on December 15th 15,000 protested. Their slogans of xenophobic paranoia (“No sharia in Europe!”) seem bizarre in Saxony, where only 2% of the population is foreign and fewer than 1% are Muslim.
The marchers make no attempt to explain their demands. Convinced of a conspiracy of political correctness, they do not speak to the press. Few bear any signs of neo-Nazism. They have eschewed violence. What they share is broad anxiety about asylum-seekers (200,000 in 2014) and immigrants."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Putting down Orwell

It's a genuinely encouraging development to see that with Hispabooks there is a new publisher for works from Spanish authors because the English-language world benefits from this.

I dislike the title of this article though. 

To put down Orwell is a mistake. Yes, his book "Homage to Catalonia" is now dated (in a few parts) but his other writing, especially his non-fiction essays are still insightful and highly relevant. I do agree that it's absurd to build up a picture of Spain only from people like Hemingway.

Chris Finnegan mentions a number of books I'd like to read. He could just as easily have also mentioned two fine authors originally from Barcelona - Eduardo Mendoza and Juan Goytisolo, whose autobiography I finished reading recently and highly recommend on a number of levels.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"The best of times?" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Has there ever been a better time to be alive in the history of our tortured, super-intelligent species? 

At the press of a few buttons we have virtually all the accumulated knowledge of the last several hundred (or is it thousand?) years available. And it is available fast.

We have the answers to a billion conceivable questions and we can communicate almost instantly with the majority of people on the planet, language barriers excepted. 

For many of us, our taste buds can be stimulated by the food from dozens of cultures who, just a few short years ago were out of reach, either geographically or economically. 

In this increasingly mixed European society, young people have started to grow up sitting next to others from Asia, Africa and assorted parts of the wider continent and for them this is as natural as mother's milk.

On top of all this, there is a gentleness that in so many senses did not exist just a generation ago. 

A man can be intimately involved in the care of his baby or child without automatically being a figure of gossip or ridicule. He can be the main cook for his family and not be thought of us somehow suspect. 

Finally too, homosexuals are more accepted or at least tolerated in the majority of circles, rather than being chemically castrated as some were less than seventy years ago (in the UK for example.)

Today too, there are increasing numbers of people who are not only acknowledging their own depression or mental illness but are speaking openly about it in public forums and in the media. 

Such a development was virtually unthinkable merely a decade ago. 

Equally though, the average women in the developed world has a wider horizon than ever before. Her place in the workplace is now barely questioned at all, though she may still be paid less than a man or have trouble getting a full-time position or promoted according to her ability.

Yet despite this progress, despite the modern mind being freer from superstition and religious dogma than probably any time in history, what do we also have?

Underneath the shiny towers of vanity there is a great, putrid sewer stench of injustice. 

There is the distinct sensation of a nausea without relief and that comes from having both your eyeballs open and your ears unblocked. Anyone who chooses to not be ignorant knows, as Leonard Cohen wrote, "the deal is rotten." 

And all those signs of enlightenment that came to view in the the first half of the 20th century now have a faded quality and there is a hollow ring to the chants, songs and poems of social movements.

Throw into this mix the fact that the warming of the earth continues at pace. 

It is only those who genuinely don't understand or politicians who have been bought out by the polluting industries that do not accept the truth of the overheating globe that we walk on. 

Or think of the wealth that flows through financial systems. Shockingly, the 85 richest people on the planet now have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion. 

And what else?

There's the vacant look of history's books
Slave labour and murder thy neighbour
Greed as a virtue and carers that hurt you
This is the present we have

We see the limp hand of the state and rape-a-date
The power of one at the point of a gun
And the good times are back with daily Prozac
This is the future that right now we have

See that liar's smile when the truth's on trial?
This is the justice we have.
Living and laughing in ignorance bliss
We have fashioned a world exactly like this.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2014.]

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

New English language theatre in Barcelona

"Marie’s Crisis Cafe is a new play. It’s set in a piano bar run by Marie with help from her friend Beauridge. On the surface the bar is just a regular place where people, like Grainger, drown their sorrows – and tourists sing to fit in. 

Dig a little deeper, and it’s also a place where troubled souls are fixed. And so life continues day in day out, until Thea shows up out of the blue… Drama, humour, despair and hope with a touch of the surreal in the modern age."

See poster for details.